ESPN to Start a Digital-Only Network With the ACC

Linear TV Channel Expected to Arrive in 2019

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ESPN and the ACC on Thursday will unveil plans for a new digital network dedicated to the Power Five athletic conference, which is slated to be followed in due course by the introduction of a linear cable TV channel, according to people familiar with the situation.

Six years in the making, the digital offering, ACC Network Plus, will be available to ESPN subscribers as of next month, at no additional cost. Authenticated subs will be able to access the channel via the WatchESPN app, which currently streams live content from nine other Bristol properties, including the flagship net and the SEC Network. ACC Network Plus is modeled closely on the SEC Network Plus service that was introduced by ESPN in August 2014, the people said.

The ACC's 15 member schools include basketball heavyweights Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Louisville and Virginia, as well as football stalwarts like Florida State and Clemson. An ACC team has won four of the last eight NCAA Men's Basketball Championships, and the conference has been represented in two of the last three football title bouts.

The new digital network for the ACC coincides with an extension of ESPN's current rights deal with the conference, which now stretches through the end of the 2035-36 academic year. The previous agreement, a 12-year pact that was hashed out in 2010 and restructured two years later, is said to have been worth $3.6 billion.

Financial terms for the new ACC network could not be determined, but if ESPN's arrangement with the SEC is any indication, the network likely will own the media properties outright and split the profits with the ACC.

ACC commissioner John Swofford is set to make a formal announcement about the new venture tomorrow morning, during the conference's annual "football kickoff" press scrum.

The linear TV channel is expected to arrive in 2019. While it's anyone's guess as to what sort of subscriber fee ESPN will look to impose on pay-TV operators interested in carrying it, the average rate for its SEC forebear is 69 cents per subscriber per month. Given a sub base of some 69.1 million households, the SEC Network generates some $572.1 million in affiliate revenue alone.

ESPN officials declined to comment on the matter.

When the ACC Network goes live, it will be the fourth Power Five conference to boast its own standalone TV channel, joining the ranks of the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-12. The Big 12 is the only elite conference to have missed the boat on a network launch, although member school the University of Texas has partnered with ESPN and IMG College on the Longhorn Network.

As it so happens, the new deal and digital launch are falling into place just weeks after Syracuse appointed veteran ESPN programming exec John Wildhack as its new athletic director.

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